Theology isn’t math; but it is theology

During the heyday of the Solidarity movement, a famous Polish slogan had it that, “For Poland to be Poland, 2 + 2 Must Always = 4”. It was a quirky but pointed way of challenging the communist culture of the lie, which befogged public life and warped relationships between parents and children, husbands and wives, colleagues and neighbors. For Poland to be something other than the claustrophobic Soviet puppet-state it had been since 1945 – for Poland to be itself, true to its character and history – Poland had to live in the truth: it had to be a country in which 2 + 2 always equaled 4.

That Solidarity slogan harkened back to George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. In Orwell’s dystopian novel, a totalitarian state maintains social control by obfuscating reality, using what the British author called “Newspeak” and doublethink” to compel its subjects to acknowledge as true what they know is false. Thus one of the more odious of the characters in the novel, a regime stooge whose job is to break the will of “thought criminals,” explains that if Big Brother and the omnipotent Party say so, two plus two doesn’t necessarily equal four: “Sometimes they are five. Sometimes they are three. Sometimes they are all of them at once.”

Which brings us to a tweet earlier this month from Father Antonio Spadaro, SJ, a prominent figure on the current Roman scene.

I don’t use Twitter, so its syntactical wonderland is a bit foreign to me. And having had previous experience of Father Spadaro’s capacity for provocation-via-Twitter, I’m prepared to think that, in this case, he may have been trying to say something other than what he seemed to be saying. But as his tweet rang ominous bells for anyone familiar with Orwell or Solidarity, it’s worth reflecting upon.

Here’s what Father Spadaro tweeted (in linear, rather than Twitter, format): “Theology is not Mathematics. 2 + 2 in Theology can make 5. Because it has to do with God and real life of people.”

Now that was not, so to speak, a tweet in a vacuum. It was a message projected into an already-overheated Catholic conversation about the proper interpretation of the apostolic exhortation Amoris Laetitia. In that context, the charitable reading of the tweet is that Father Spadaro was reminding us of the obvious – that pastoral care is an art, and that the priest dealing with complicated and messy human situations is not like a first-grade teacher drilling six-year olds in addition.

But then the question inevitably arises, what is the relationship of truth to pastoral care? And why suggest, even in Twitter-world, that there are multiple “truths” – a convention of the post-modern academic playpen that leads by a short road to the chaos of “your truth” and “my truth” and nothing properly describable as the truth?

As for theology, the word means speaking-of-God, which in Christian terms speaking of the One who is Truth – the Truth Who makes us free in the deepest meaning of human liberation. There are many ways of doing theology, and not all of them are strictly syllogistic; St. Ephrem the Syrian and St. Thérèse of Lisieux, Doctors of the Church, were not logicians. But if theology decays into illogical forms of Newspeak, it is false to itself.

It was providential that Christianity had its first “inculturation” in a milieu – Greco-Roman antiquity – where the principle of non-contradiction was well-established and something couldn’t “be” and “not be” simultaneously. That cultural environment was where Christianity found the conceptual tools to turn confession and proclamation – “Jesus is Lord” – into catechesis and Creed. Suppose the first “inculturation” had been in a setting where it made perfect sense to say “Jesus is Lord” and “Jesus is not Lord” at the same time – like the culture of India two millennia ago? It made a great deal of difference that the first formative centuries of Christianity took place in a culture where 2 + 2 always equaled 4.

Applying the truths of the faith to the complexities of life is not a matter of logic alone. But if attempts to do so are illogical, in that they stretch truth to the breaking point, they’re unlikely to be pastorally effective. Because the soul needs truth to be free.

COMING UP: Fake history

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Speaking of public policy debates, Daniel Patrick Moynihan famously said that, while everyone had a right to his opinion, no one had a right to his own facts. Something similar might be said about today’s debates within the Church: everyone has a right to their opinion about the state of Catholicism in 2017, but no one has a right to invent their own Church history.

I thought of Moynihan’s Rule when reading British writer Paul Vallely’s December 17 op-ed article in the Guardian. There, the author of an important biography of Pope Francis argued that the Pope is “steadily filling the College of Cardinals with moderate pastors rather than doctrinal ideologues.” This is, of course, a standard journalistic trope. It’s also fake history.

Which fact can easily be established by consulting the Annuario Pontificio, the official Vatican yearbook. There, in the pages devoted to the College of Cardinals, we find these names, in order of their cardinalatial seniority: Roger Etchegaray, Godfried Danneels, Thomas Stafford Williams, Paul Poupard, Achille Silvestrini, Angelo Sodano, Roger Mahony, Jaime Ortega, William Keeler, Darío Castrillón Hoyos, Dionigi Tettamanzi, Christoph Schönborn, Giovanni Battista Re, Walter Kasper, Theodore McCarrick, Óscar Rodríguez Maradiaga, Cláudio Hummes, Cormac Murphy-O’Connor, Karl Lehmann, Renato Martino, Tarcisio Bertone, Peter Turkson, Franc Rodé, Leonardo Sandri, Giovanni Lajolo, Seán Brady, Oswald Gracias, Odilo Scherer, Francesco Monterisi, Kurt Koch, Gianfranco Ravasi, Reinhard Marx, Francesco Coccopalmerio, João Braz de Aviz, Domenico Calcagno, Rainer Maria Woelki, Béchara Boutros Raï, and Luis Antonio Tagle.

Now I don’t wish to be harsh, but anyone who imagines that any of those men is a “doctrinal ideologue” has forfeited his claim to be a credible Vaticanista. And every single one of them was named a cardinal by John Paul II or Benedict XVI. Every. Single. One.

Moreover, Cardinals Danneels, Kasper, Lehmann, and Murphy-O’Connor were among the chief promoters of Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio in the conclave of 2013. After that conclave elected Bergoglio as Pope Francis, the new pontiff immediately named Cardinals Rodríguez Maradiaga, Gracias, and Marx to his Council of Cardinals, a papal kitchen-cabinet for curial reform. Cardinals Braz de Aviz, Calcagno, Coccopalmerio, Hummes, Koch, and Schönborn have played significant roles in the pontificate to date, and Cardinal Tagle is on every Great Mentioner’s list of papabile for the future.

And to repeat, appassionato e fortissimo: each of these men was created cardinal by John Paul II or Benedict XVI.

Dividing history into two sharply contrasting periods occasionally makes sense. The United States before and after the Civil War comes to mind: prior to that great cataclysm, people said “the United States are….”; afterwards, the usage became “the United States is.” Japan before and after World War II is another instance where straightforward bifurcation doesn’t involve simplistic periodizing. But such examples are rare. Poland today is living through a period of domestic political contention that seems remarkably similar to that country’s debates about its identity in the 1920s and 1930s. France is to some extent still fighting internal battles that began in 1789. History is far more organic and developmental, and much less linear, than the artificial division of the human story into binary, opposed periods suggests.

That’s particularly true of the Church. We’ve become far too accustomed to thinking of the Second Vatican Council as a kind of ecclesiastical Grand Canyon separating two utterly different periods of Church history. Yet the second-most cited source in the footnotes of the documents of Vatican II, after the Bible, is the magisterium of Pope Pius XII, whose reforming encyclicals in the mid-1940s accelerated the dynamics that shaped the Council between 1962 and 1965. Indeed, Vatican II is inconceivable without Popes Leo XIII (1878-1903), Pius X (1903-1914), Benedict XV (1914-1922), Pius XI (1922-1939), and Pius XII (1939-1958).

Furthermore, the suggestion that the pontificates of John Paul II and Benedict XVI were intellectually sterile is simply ridiculous. These were the years of the Theology of the Body, the great encyclicals Redemptor Hominis, Dives in Misericordia, Veritatis Splendor, Redemptoris Missio, and Centesimus Annus, and the remarkable “September Addresses” of Benedict XVI in Regensburg, New York, London, and Berlin. Between 1978 and 2013, a rich body of papal teaching – intellectually bold and evangelically fertile – was given to the Church.

It does Pope Francis no good service to demean his two predecessors as rigid ideologues. It’s also fake history.